President Trump is getting his way, as many states begin to ease or entirely lift stay-at-home rules meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But a specter of doom hangs over the reopenings, as consumers remain fearful and public health experts predict new outbreaks that could force new waves of business closures.
“America is getting its life back!” Trump tweeted on May 14. In Wisconsin, revelers streamed into bars as the Republican-controlled Supreme Court invalidated the Democratic governor’s stay-home order. New Jersey said its famed beaches will open this summer, with restrictions. Florida entered “phase two” of its reopening, allowing gatherings of up to 50. Even hotspot states such as New York and Louisiana are beginning to open areas with low prevalence of the virus.
But it’s a long leap from gradual reopenings to a robust economic recovery that Trump can tout as Election Day approaches in November. Shutdowns have already done massive damage to the U.S. economy, with retail sales and industrial production both plunging by the biggest margin on record this week. Another 3 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance, bringing total unemployment claims to 37 million during the last two months. Total employment is back to 2011 levels and will probably regress further.
While some cooped-up Americans might be grateful for the chance to get out, public health experts are alarmed. Rick Bright, the government vaccine expert now demoted for criticizing Trump’s slow response to the virus, told Congress the United States faces “the darkest winter in modern history” if it doesn’t mount a comprehensive national assault on the virus. Trump keeps saying a vaccine is coming by the end of the year, but Bright said we could have a vaccine by 2021 at best, and then only if everything goes perfectly. He added that it will probably take much longer than a year.
Trump is setting expectations for a return to normal much faster than it’s likely to happen. In 2003, President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The war lasted another eight years, killing thousands more. Trump is probably making the same mistake, substituting wishful thinking for measured judgment. For that reason, this week’s Trump-o-meter reads FAILING, the second-lowest score.
Trump continues to dismiss one strategy that could actually help the economy recover faster: A muscular federal program to dramatically scale up testing for the coronavirus, along with an army of contact tracers to map the virus everywhere it goes and identify people newly at risk before they infect others. Many economists and public health experts, both Democrat and Republican, have said this is the best way to build confidence that people can move around safely.
Trump disagrees, saying this week that testing is “overrated.” It’s possible Trump fears increased testing will show more cases and reflect badly on his leadership. “When you test,” he said, “you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.” By that logic, there’d be no cases and no need to close businesses at all if we did no testing. Fail.
The assumption behind many states’ reopening strategy is that workers will return to work and shoppers will go back to stores, if only everything opens up. Er, maybe not. Surveys clearly show that a strong majority of Americans—of both parties—are worried about coronavirus and leery about being in crowds. Fewer than half say they’re likely to shop at a mall, fly, go to a movie theater, attend a concert or ride public transportation, even if their state government lifts restrictions on those activities, according to the Voter Study Group. Consumer confidence has plunged, as well. Reopening businesses may be the first step toward recovery, but luring people out may be harder. Declaring victory far before the war is over won’t convince anybody.